Photo by Önder Örtel

In a complex, often demanding job like ours, everyone has times when things get a little ‘wobbly’. This is true for newbies and 20 year veterans alike. The trick is to recognise it happening as early as possible and then lean hard into the stuff that creates your own wellness.

What do I mean by ‘wobbly’? Simply that you are operating outside of your comfort zone for too long. Tasks start to build up and no matter how much you try to prioritise, you have a feeling of pressure that doesn’t go away. It’s there when you get up and there when you should have finished with the day.

This is a dangerous place to operate in for too long as you don’t have the capacity to absorb unexpected or intense new events. You are stretched.

We’ve often talked about trying to be slacker better which is obviously a provocation based around the concept of slack. When things start to feel wobbly, this is the time ‘slackness’ matters.

Long time followers will know that by slack, we don’t mean lazy. Lazy just doesn’t cut it in school leadership – it is the opposite of what school leaders should be.

Slack on the other hand is something to aspire to. I like to use a rope analogy to explain this – a rope that is stretched tightly has no ‘give’ in it. There is no more possible movement and regardless of the strength of that particular rope, if it is pulled ever tighter, eventually it will break. And even if there’s not a catastrophic failure, a rope operating at its limit will wear out quickly and have to be replaced.

On the other hand, a rope with some slack has the capacity to temporarily handle more load. It can cope with unexpected tugs and pulls without breaking and lasts a long time because it is not at its maximum very often. This is good for the rope and good for the things that depend on that rope to do its job.

That’s why slack matters.

.   .   .

So how do we know our own ‘rope’ is too tight? I suggest that it will be easy to tell if you are self-aware. Simple stuff like feeling tired most days, struggling to get to sleep or struggling to stay asleep, having difficulty focusing and finding it hard to remember stuff, not having time or energy for important people in your life or important hobbies, lack of patience . . . all of these are markers.

It is also very likely that people who care about you have noticed and they may even have tried to tell you. Did you listen?

At the times when we find ourselves in this stretched state, with no end in sight, the solution is to lean into our own wellness knowledge. Simply put, we need to deliberately do more of the stuff that we know makes us feel healthier, happier and slacker. For me this means playing games, healthy food, getting outside, and doing practical things. Music is good too and anything that makes me laugh is gold. I also know that shutting the laptop and leaving it shut for a while helps too. Your own kete of goodness may vary, but you know what it is.

As we finally reach the end of this Term, now is the perfect time to ensure you have a healthy amount of slack in reserve.


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Last Friday when David published his awesomely simple “The Positivity Button” blog, I found myself with something that hasn’t happened in months. An empty calendar.

It was hard to believe. 

An empty calendar.

Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty to do, but an empty calendar is pretty rare these days. Unheard of even.

It came at a particularly tricky and difficult time – full of plans that really had to fall like dominoes in the right direction for it all to come to fruition. And it had been like this for a long time. You’ll know those types of times well I suspect.

But it did highlight something to me though that I should have reminded myself at the time.

Nothing is forever. There are ebbs and flows in this job, and every now and again you’ll get through it all and have time to breathe.

The difficulty is knowing when this is about to happen. My empty calendar on Friday could quite as easily have filled itself with all sorts of school led maladies. But on Friday the stars aligned and there was nothing but space.


It was a good reminder too that when those spaces afford themselves, don’t go packing them full of things that need to happen. Instead, use the time to do something in your school that you want to do. If you want to do some of the needs – all good! Jump right in! But don’t put the pressure on yourself to believe that this is the time for you to get ahead. You well might, but you might also be better off taking that breather. 

This is classic Be Slacker Better stuff. Remember, this is quite different to being a Better Slacker. It’s about giving yourself the permission to give yourself some slack. To give yourself some time.

So as I was spending the time tidying up the piles on my desk and shredding months of plan workings that all led to the master plan that I had just landed, I got to thinking more about David’s post and his Positivity Button.

Brian Eno is better known as a musician/producer who has worked with the likes of U2, David Bowie, Roxy Music and Coldplay to name a few. In 1975 he teamed up with an artist called Peter Schmidtt to design a box of cards called oblique strategies. It’s a little bit more complex than David’s Positivity button, and not quite as deep as all the stuff philosophized over by the Stoics – but essentially it’s all the same; A way of looking at the current situation and trying to make some sense of it.

Eno’s Oblique Strategies are a set of provocations and ideas that can help you look at your situation from a different view point. These days you can go straight to and click a button that will give you a random oblique thought provoking one liner.

Originally the sayings came in a set of 55 separate cards that wikipedia tells me “offered a challenging constraint intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.

I’ve taken them a step forward and replaced “artists” with principals. Well, it’s not too much of a step forward – we are after all “artists”!

Here goes a sample of what they have to offer:

Don’t be afraid of things because they are easy to do

Once the search is in progress, something will be found

Honour thy error as a hidden intention

And a personal favourite: 

Take a break

On Friday when I found my calendar to be free I took a break from thinking and tidied my desk. No shame in that.

For someone who has had a year of own goals and fair share of errors, the “Honour thy error as a hidden intention” one sounds sweet. It immediately gives you a release from that anxious terror that you’ve done something wrong. And it helps you look at the situation from a different angle. Maybe this principal gig isn’t so bad after all.

Of course this is all just another way of helping you get through your situations. It’s as relevant and as correct as David’s ‘Positivity Button’ (“I’m going to have a really really good day”) or the Stoics “Have we found anything better?

…than being brave

…than moderation and sobriety

…than doing what’s right

…than truth and understanding?”

And maybe, just maybe it’ll help you get to that next time when you have a clear calendar in one piece.



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We know you’re probably thinking, “is it Friday already?”  But not this time . . . the Forty Hour team are heading to New Plymouth to share some thinking at the NZEI Rural Principals’ Conference and thought we’d drop the second in our 5 Minute Roadie series to celebrate.

This time Steve explains a phrase that can be provocative – Be Slacker Better.


Dave and Steve


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The other day I found myself looking over my wife’s shoulder as she viewed a clip on line from comedian and TV personality Miranda Hart. Some of you may know her show, “Miranda”.

“Turn that up,” I said to Helen, “what did she just say?”.

Miranda was talking about life in lockdown and the pressures, stresses and uncertainties that this created for everyone. And then she quoted a guy called Dave Hollis which really took my liking;

“Hear this: in the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.”

Bang! Wow! What a great thing to say. And on he went; 

“If things go back exactly as they were we will have missed the opportunity to take the good from this bad.

The gift nobody’s asked for is sitting here for us all to open — an opportunity to do some housekeeping in where we focus, who we spend time with, what we consume, how we work, what matters and most importantly what doesn’t.

Take notes. We’re getting a lesson we cannot forget when things return to normal.”

I liked what this guy Dave was saying. 

On his Facebook page, he describes himself in this way; “Every day Dude, In love with Rachel Hollis, Dad x4 Dominating the roads, NYTimes best selling author”

I like this description greatly. I don’t even know the guy but in a very small precis he’s told me he’s not a big noter. He’s just an every day guy who loves his wife and family. Oh, and he’s a NY Times best selling author – but that bit comes last.

It resonates with me because it’s essentially what David Armstrong and I have been promoting in the Forty Hour Principal project over the last year. We spend so much of our time in our professional lives leading, sorting, being accountable, mentoring, writing screeds of words, connecting, relating and being “fully there”. By the time it’s time for our other life, when we leave school each day, there’s so often little left but to collapse on the couch and nap away the evening in a state of exhaustion. At present I imagine that our professional Facebook pages would all read like mine; Steve Zonnevylle, Principal. Full Stop.

I want to be more like David Hollis’ Facebook precis. I want any description of me to start with the most important things. I want to be proud to be a principal, but I don’t want it to define me. As I’ve said in previous posts, I want my principalship to be a part of who I am, but not all of who I am. 

Last year, the other Dave (David Armstrong) wrote a great piece in our book “The Forty Hour Principal” called, “Be Slacker to Be Better”. Like the title of our book, the notion of trying to be slacker than normal in our roles is totally alien (as is the notion of actually working a forty hour week).

For most, using the words ‘slacker’ and ‘principal’ in the same sentence is akin to blasphemy. Recently we were asked to present at a meeting and we were keen to call our talk “Be Slacker Better”. However, the organisers quite rightly pointed out that many would see the notion of this as being almost disrespectful or rude. We could see their point.

.  .  .

So what is the point that we’re trying to make, and how does it relate to Dave Hollis’ invitation of not rushing back to normal?

Being Slacker Better is a call to arms. And when better than now, when we all have a bit of time on our hands to think things through to start to consider what a new normal might look like.

Plenty of people are talking up the premise that education will be different when we get out of isolation. If that is the case, then we should also be talking about the role that we play, and how we play it as principals.

We certainly aren’t advocating becoming slack. Instead, we want you to step up and look at the way you do your job. Take time to look at the habits you’ve bought into over time.  Take time to assess the way you want to live your life. Big questions. But you’ve got some time on your hands, so why not do it now?

Take a look at some of the things that you do now that you personally would consider slack if you did them differently. Don’t worry about the other side of the coin – things that other people would consider slack if you did them differently. This is your journey, not theirs. 

For example: 

  • What if you didn’t write so much in your Board Report? (Someone once said if you can’t explain it simply then you don’t actually understand what you’re talking about.)
  • What if you worked at home two days a term?
  • What if you left school at 4:00pm on those quieter days?
  • What if you closed the door of your office and made yourself unavailable more often?
  • What if you spent more time in classrooms and felt confident that administration trivia always has a habit of getting done tomorrow, or the next day?
  • What if you didn’t have so many meetings?
  • What if you viewed your role as the key relationship maker/connector instead of the key educator?
  • What if you looked to maximise your own talents within the school setting more?
  • What if you decided not to sweat the small stuff?
  • What would happen if …………..?

The list goes on, and is limited only by the questions you ask yourself. In the end, Being Slacker Better is less about some internalised concept of slackness, and more about finding those things that are actually the most important and getting to them more often by being efficient. 

With efficiency comes time. Not time to do more at school, but time to do more in the rest of your life. This is a very important point. It underlines the premise that being a principal is part of your life, not your whole life.

So to paraphrase Dave Hollis; in the rush to return to normal, let’s use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to and change those things that are not.



(What do you think? Add your voice in the comments below, or over on The Forty Hour Principal Facebook page.)